Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reconcile and Rest in Peace

Yesterday, it was the 16th of December and in South Africa this day is a declared public holiday since 1838, and then revisited after 1994, and declared a public holiday again. It was also the day that  former Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, passed away. And the day that my concerns for South Africa rose to the surface again. It was the Day of Reconciliation. I grew up in an Afrikaans-speaking community and came to know the 16th as the Day of the Vow, described as one of South Africa's public holidays on the South African Government website:  

On 16 December 1838 about 10 000 troops under the command of Dambuza (Nzobo) and  Nhlela attacked the Voortrekkers, but the 470 Voortrekkers, with the advantage of gun powder, warded them off. Only three Voortrekkers were wounded, but more than 3 000 Zulus were killed during the battle.
In apartheid South Africa 16 December was known as Day of the Vow, as the Voortrekkers in preparation for the battle took a Vow before God that they would build a church and that they and their descendants would observe the day as a day of thanksgiving should they be granted victory. With the advent of democracy in South Africa 16 December retained its status as a public holiday, however, this time with the purpose of fostering reconciliation and national unity.
And then I read an article in the New York Times and my heart sank a bit again as I listened to the views of one Afrikaans-speaking male in his late fourties - and knowing that he represents the sentiments of quite a number of South Africans: "The Day of Reconciliation may be a good idea, but for Afrikaners, the Day of the Vow is still what’s in our hearts,” said Johan de Beer, 46, a teacher waiting on the steps for the gates of the monument to open in the early morning. “This is a religious holiday that is based on our people’s history.”" It is a good idea (only) ?? followed by a 'BUT'... How could there possibly be a 'BUT' these days, in this country?

Now let there be no doubt:  I speak Afrikaans, English and German, understand some isiXhosa and Dutch. I can also help myself a bit in sign language. I have a light-skinned female avatar in Second Life and speak with the voice of a female in Skype. I also have a dark-skinned male avatar that I manage for our company. I am more than the stereotype  - just like you. I define myself simply as human and South African . Lately, I started thinking I am "Euro-African": only these - not black, not white, not inbetween, nor any cother colour or lack of it. I am also not an Afrikaner, or a Boer merely because 'Alanagh Recreant' is a light skinned avatar from South Africa that also speaks and loves Afrikaans. And certainly not a "whitey" nor umlungu (which means the same as 'dirty scum' from waves)- one of those racially-charged and hurtful linguistic shackles in our collective vocubulary. I defy being defined in terms of my race, my nation, spirtuality, religious background, cultural affinity or sexual preference. And I will not stand prejudice and human rights' violation in any form - have not in the past and will not now.. 

... which is why I am so uncomfortable about Gareth Cliff's insensitive remarks (which in itself is his constitutional right to free speech!) when the former Minister of Health, 'Manto' in nation's talk, died yesterday - despite the allegations that she did not seize drinking after the first transpart, or the fact that her support of  flawed ANC policies on HIV/Aids (at the time) may have done irreversable damage to many families losing loved ones to the disease.  For THIS most of us agree upon: the shame of her under-achievement when she had her courageous deputy, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, fired when she challenged Manto's policies on Aids and exposed the state of hospitals in the media. Unacceptable. However, she was also a gender activist and contributed to the struggle in a big way, as so well described by Stephan Grootes in The Daily Maverick:
"Tshabalala-Msimang's contribution to our democracy is huge. We should remember her for that. We should remember that she gave up almost her entire life, put herself in danger, and left her family for the cold Russian winter, in the hopes of making things better for her people. She achieved that, and lived to see a better life for all. For that, we should be grateful. But her legacy is also the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Aids sufferers who could have been saved had her beliefs been different".

The fact is that death is inevitable for all, and that it is the last thing that any human being will do on earth. It is the ultimate human right (although not mentioned explicitly in the top 30 list) to die with dignity in a civilised society. And, it is just unacceptable that her right to such dignity as a human being - even though she passed on - is being disregarded via @GarethCliff and others:
"Manto is dead. Good. A selfish and wicked bungler of the lowest order. Rotten attitude and rancid livers - all three of them."

This is deeply personal for me in a way: My father, an active  minister (of religion) in a small community was declined a liver transplant (due to non-alcoholic liver chirrosis) by local doctors at the MediClinic George two years ago. We were told to prepare for the inevitable as (1) there were 'not enough organs available in South Africa' and (2) he would 'not qualify due to age'! He passed on a defeated man five months later at the George Mediclinic. It was a digified moment in the early morning -  on 10 January 2007. He was 70 years old. A few weeks later I learned about Manto's liver transplant on the frontpage news, and age not being the main consideration. Today, I read that there are not enough patients for all the available donors. And this knowledge was not enough for either my dad or for Manto, or our families. 

Life has moved on, and it will serve no purpose to reflect on the medical wisdom or lack of it in the past and be tortured by 'IFs' and seeking reasons... I can merely remember and forgive - even myself. And believe it was his time to move on, and he has. 

The fact remains: Reconciliation in South Africa can only happen at a personal level between people. One on one. It is not pie in the sky stuff. It is respect for humanity and for life - so that a healthy liver (cleaning the body of toxins) is wished upon anyone that needs it regardless of our own subjective judgment on whether she/her 'deserves' it. 

President Zuma spoke at Freedom Park in Pretoria yesterday. I could not agree more with him: "Let me emphasise that in this era of promoting renewal, we must promote the values of non-racialism, reconciliation and non-sexism amongst all our people, black and white," he said. However,  Mr. President, with respect, please do NOT assume that I have NOT done that already, merely based on what others say or do that look like me or talk like me. And similarly, please do not think for one moment that all those that look different than I do, or talk in one of our other 11 languages, have actually managed to overcome the deeply entrenched hurt of the past by now - without demanding that I suffer for the sins of my 'fathers'.

Yes, we need to get beyond and far away from stereotyping people based on their skin colour, their gender, their income-levels, their fashion, their career choice, their confictions, their associations, their sexual orientation, and most of all, their mistakes of the past - whether they are in the physical world or in a virtual world or social network.

We should be judged by our actions and not by the colour of our skin: and this is exactly where both  Manto Tsabalala-Msimang and Gareth Cliff failed in my book. The first by not acting with the power she had to protect innocent people from the deadly spread of HIV/Aids in South Africa, and the second, for not knowing when her influence is over and her family deserves the respect that she did not earn from him.


At least both spoke out bluntly and fearlessly about the convictions, with the necessary disregard for criticism, and were cut from the same cloth in this respect.  Few hidden agendas. Freedom of Speech some times knows no boundaries. Maybe it should.



~ This blog entry is in memory of my father, Chris Steenkamp, who  challenged me intellectually and supported my visit to the South African Council of Churches in 1989 where I met the late Beyers Naude who made a lasting impression on me ~


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